Restaurant Review: Arugula

From the beginning, this past Friday did seem like a great day. Anyone who is dumb enough to deliberately schedule himself a nine o’clock class on Friday mornings should have his admission to Williams immediately retracted. It was raining, cold and depressing outside, and I haven’t even started talking about my headache. Even the professor’s dog skipped class – he usually shows up, gets a few kids to pet him and goes to sleep for an hour while we watch art history slides. Friday was too disgusting for even him to show up.

But the morning’s light rain did wonders for my woozy head and I remembered that my afternoon class was cancelled. So when I walked down to Spring Street for some Argentine lunch at Arugula, I was in a cheerful mood. I had a good feeling about this place as soon as I walked through the door, as the brightly colored walls and lively music provided a welcoming atmosphere. Shelves running along one wall display a large selection of groceries from Latin and South America, and the food preparation area runs the length of the store in view of the customer.

There are several seating options: Patrons can eat on a high stool at the counter, in the chairs surrounding most tables or, best of all, in the comfortable booth in the front window. Here Arugula provides mounds of plush, oversized pillows, and if this area is free when you get there – grab it. The restaurant’s ambience is a great asset.

Arugula’s menu offers a wide selection of sandwiches, platters, salads and other interesting fare, along with the daily specials and frequent offerings of free samples. There were more than enough appealing options, and I had a tough time deciding what to order, but the first item had to be the “arugula” sandwich – you always have to try a restaurant’s signature dish. I made my order and then ran headfirst into Arugula’s most often-cited flaw: the interminable wait.

I was able to look through the entire Harrison gallery, located down the street, and get back to Arugula with time to spare before my sandwich was done. While admittedly Harrison’s isn’t the Clark Art Institute, I looked at a fair amount of artwork while waiting for my sandwich. Especially when considering that there wasn’t a large crowd in the store, just your average number of patrons. I’d like to add that some of Harrison’s fare was interesting, but you already know that I’m only just taking Art History 101, so my opinion on the art isn’t worth much. The point is, the wait was excessively long.

Snagging one of the seats in the cozy nook by the window, and was peacefully reading last week’s copy of the Record when one of the employees brought my sandwich to me on a nice ceramic plate with a metal fork and knife, asking if I needed anything else with my meal. This is a good example of the friendly service that you will encounter at Arugula, whose familial relationship with the customers derives from the fact that it can be linked to the Williams family tree. Marta Ferrari, the chef and owner, was already a common-law local in Williamstown before setting up shop on Spring Street last year, as her daughter Marianna Maurer ’03 had been at Williams for three years already.

The “arugula” consists of a grilled chicken cutlet, arugula lettuce and guacamayo (avocado blended with mayonnaise), and ranks among the most popular sandwiches ordered by the student clientele. It is served on a tailor-made sandwich roll: fresh and a good weight, but not too dense, and not excessively crispy or dry. The cutlet was grilled well, moist both inside and out, and was well-complemented by the arugula and the guacamayo. Compared to the usual iceberg lettuce found on regular sandwiches, arugula lettuce is distinguished by significantly more natural zest, and it accentuated the guacamayo in flavoring the sandwich.

The guacamayo itself is one of the most incredible gastronomic innovations I’ve ever seen. It is the fusion of mayonnaise, a helpful condiment on almost any sandwich, and delicious guacamole, which really makes the “arugula” distinctive among the great mass of chicken cutlet sandwiches that inhabit our culinary universe. It’s a fairly simple idea – combine two flavors that are generally liked – but it works very well.

Next up is the “cubano especial,” a hearty offering of ham, pork sausage, Swiss cheese, pickles and regular mayo on a roll. After taking one bite, I realized that this sandwich presented me with a difficult choice: do I inhale the rest of this absolutely delicious panini in under a minute, or should I slowly savor every morsel? My mother then came to me as if in a vision, or maybe just a delirious haze, and while giving me the evil eye, chided me for even thinking of displaying poor manners. With that thought in mind, I took another measured bite.

The cubano is filled with succulent meat and is definitely one of my favorite items on Arugula’s menu. The melted Swiss cheese and mayo were well chosen as complements to the two meats, though I could have done without the pickles. I also had to wonder whether this sandwich would benefit from substituting the wonderful guacamayo for the regular version seen here.

The final sandwich I tried was the “Daniela”: a prosciutto sandwich with mozzarella slices and arugula lettuce. While I enjoyed the thinly sliced, salty prosciutto (the menu states that the Daniela is made with ham, but, in fact, it uses prosciutto), this sandwich was the only one of the three that I thought came up short with regard to the amount of meat and cheese inside. The roll was tasty and fresh, but along with the abundant mozzarella, it dominated the stronger tastes of the sandwich. The combination was great, but I would have appreciated a little more meat.

All of the sandwiches cost between $6 and $7, which is definitely pricey and perhaps on the edge of a student budget, but Arugula has recently addressed this situation by issuing frequent-buyer cards similar to those used by Subway. Every time you purchase a sandwich, you get your card stamped, and the tenth sandwich is free – this amounts to a ten percent discount which makes prices slightly more reasonable ($5.85 instead of $6.50).

I tried two other items: the burrito and the empañadas. The burrito is probably the best value for your money available here, as it is chock full of rice, black beans, lettuce, tomato, corn, red peppers and cheddar and jack cheese, along with your choice of beef, chicken, pork or vegetarian-style (without the added meat). This monster of a burrito costs $4.50. If this doesn’t fill you up, you may want to consider getting a stomach reduction operation. There’s less of the featured meat in here than I’d like relative to the amount of rice, but for the money you can’t beat the burrito.

The empañadas are, hands down, my favorite item. They are small pastry crusts filled with beef, chicken, ham and cheese, spinach or corn, along with egg, several other vegetables and seasonings. The buttery pastry crust is flaky and is the perfect vessel for the tasty concoctions on the interior. My favorite was the ham and cheese complemented by spinach, though, according to Ferrari, the beef variety is the original empañada from Argentina. You really can’t go wrong with any of them. As my mouth closed over the gently-yielding pastry crust, the aroma and flavor of the interior overwhelmed my sensory experience. I immediately wished I had opted for the special, which encompasses three empañada of your choice and a small salad for $6.50.

If it hasn’t become obvious by now, the food at Arugula will not let you down. The menu features items that you probably haven’t seen before, and the food is well prepared, ranging from good to delicious. Of the food I ate there, nothing was unlikable, and the establishment itself is a pleasant place to sit and enjoy
your meal. There is a definite time element involved, and unless you are ordering the empañadas (which are not made to order but prepared earlier and kept in a display case throughout the day), you will not want to visit Arugula if you are in a hurry.

The fairly lofty pricing is also something that you will have to consider, though the recent introduction of the “tenth one free” card somewhat mediates that concern. The final word on Arugula, then, is that if you’ve got time to kill and a hole in your belly, then it’s a great place to sit down and allow all your senses to be stimulated.